The nutshell version of how WhatsApp’s newly enabled end-to-end encryption works


Everything we do today–be it work, play and all the stuff in-between–hinges on effective communication. And even the act of interpersonal communication has witnessed a massive upheaval this last decade–the digital, mobile medium.
From Whatsapp to Skyper to Viber to Facebook Messenger, millions today connect with each other via a host of communications apps and tools. And while these tools may have varying capabilities and features, they do share one aspect: all of them operate using the Internet. The transmission of billions of messages, emojis, photos, voice and files happens over that ubiquitous mesh of public networks we call the Web.

The good thing about the Internet is that it’s getting increasingly accessible. From cellular service providers (Vodafone, Reliance, Idea Cellular etc) to Government-owned telephone-based DSL connections (BSNL, VSNL), to private broadband service providers (Hathway, You Broadband etc) there are numerous ways in which consumers can connect to the Internet via a plethora of devices. And these local networks are in turn connected by even larger ultra high speed global fibre networks that link entire nations and global regions.
But all of these networks are owned and operated by companies, entities and governments. Which means that they could well peer into the contents of their networks if needed.
With end-to-end encryption–a feature that WhatApp recently enabled–all of the data transmitted remains encrypted no matter where it is in transit. Therefore a third party–in the case of WhatsApp, even they themselves–will be absolutely unable to decipher that tumbling cat GIF you sent to your mum.
But what is end-to-end encryption?
Imagine standing in a mall and speaking to your friend. Being a public space, you can use it–like many others–as a place to discuss whatever you want. But then the mall owner could employ people to eavesdrop on your conversation, it being a public place and all. And there goes the privacy of your conversation.
But let’s say you and your friend are both language savants, capable of inventing a new tongue every two minutes, where the ‘keys’ to understanding that language sits only with the two of you. If you were to talk to each other in a completely strange language, you could well be shouting out your conversation in public, but your conversation would be ‘private’ because only you and your friend have the ability to understand each other.
To make this more interesting, let’s assume the two of you can invent a new language every two minutes into your conversation. Even if a bystander happened to steal your keys, they would not have nearly enough of time to learn your new language because the two of you would have changed it two minutes later, along with newer keys!
This is pretty much what happens in Whatsapp’s end-to-end encryption, now turned on by default for every user of the app’s latest version. It uses an method of encryption called the Signal Protocol, which (in a nutshell) functions like the hyper intelligent conversationalists above. And this airtight encryption has now facilitated unprecedented levels of communication security to pretty much every smartphone user on the planet.
Of course, there are tough moral and ethical scenarios that are likely to arise out of this move–where both good and bad elements will leverage this heightened level of communication security and privacy.
But then, isn’t that the case with every single technology advancement?